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Brain plasticity and criminal behavior (part 1 of 3)

Posted Apr 09 2009 7:14pm

On March 24th, I posted a blog entry in which I made an audacious promise. I promised to review why and how, from a brain plasticity perspective, we Americans are so good at creating criminals, in sharp contrast with most other modern world cultures. I cited the specific comparative example of Japan, where the rates of both burglary and violent crime are about 1/60th the rates in our own country. I also pointed out that the numbers of individuals in the U.S. in stir, or under the administration of our courts (on probation; on parole) continues to grow apace. There’s no end in sight. Pretty soon most of us will be in handcuffs.

What ARE we doing, so effectively, to generate such a large and still-growing criminal class? What COULD account for the fact that in many of our states, more than 1 in 10 male citizens are now identified as ‘offenders’ – and for the fact that the majority of them shall ultimately be identified as ‘repeat offenders’. What COULD we do, to change this picture.

The literature describing the origins of misbehavior is vast, and my goal is not to review it on a broad sociological or psychological level. Here, let’s consider these issues from a little different perspective. Given the plastic nature of how our brain generates our model of the world, and given an understanding of how, through our brain plasticity processes, we do or do not successfully fit into and adapt to the wider world, how do your child-rearing strategies result in such a large percentage of wrong-doers?

[Before I dive into this discussion, it should be clear to you that a lot of hubris is involved, for your scribe to take on this subject. Consider the thousand or two unsaid provisos that accompany the following ‘analysis’, and take my arguments for what they are, i.e., arguments, from one scientist’s limited perspective.]


Creation of the Person, through brain plasticity processes; development of attachment and empathy.

The processes by which we create our Selves and grow our attachment to others (the basis of empathy) are pretty well understood. Operationally, our skills and abilities are defined (within the limits of our genetics) by the massive ‘specialization’ of our brain as a function of the richness of our infant and childhood experiences, by the acquisition of a large repertoire of skills and abilities through progressively elaborated experiences and learning, and by the acquisition of a very large body of information about our world. A reliable model of our special world is based on our brain organizing its representations and memories on the basis of temporal coincidence and prediction. As we develop and categorize information about our world through a massive schedule of associative learning (what goes with what; what predicts what), we are also growing a stable Self. That is achieved through a massive schedule of association of every sensation, perception, thought and action with its SOURCE — that is, to a growing “Person”. Billions of times a year, our brain’s actions are Self-referenced. That emergent physical/anatomical construct is embodied because it is created from billions of moments of feeling coming from our external surfaces. If we think about our Self’s location, we put it just behind our eyes — again because of that massive schedule of Self- (source of action-) reference, stemming from continuous, ongoing visual experiences. We know that this ultimately-stable (if all goes right) construct provides a kind of temporal centering of the flow of all of our perceived ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ actions. We know that it is a product of brain plasticity, because studies have shown that such associations are an emergent consequence of changes in connection strengths in our brains.

As our Personhood grows, again if all goes well, that Person rapidly creates a strong attachment to its primary caregiver(s). Again, through a heavy schedule of interactions, the brain massively associates a mother and/or other primary caregiver with its growing Self, literally encorporating it into the Person that is evolving in the brain. Millions of times in the first year of life, mom and her voice and smell and touch are referenced to the growing ‘me’, and me, equally, to mom. In most children, attachments quickly elaborate to include other members of the family – a second parent, siblings, grandparents, a daily caregiver, et alia. Each one of these individuals literally becomes a part of the Person that is developing within the brain of the child, again via a heavy schedule of positive brain plasticity. [That’s why we defend them to the death if circumstances require it ; we’re defending ourSelves. That’s why the loss of a child or other loved one is commonly interpreted as a partial personal death. In a very real sense, it is.] In the healthy older child, substantial attachments are ultimately extended to the wider society – to a wider population of individuals in the family, the neighborhood, schools, church, community, nation.

In Part 2, I’ll consider the child in which “all does NOT go well”.

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